Why have I spent so much time throughout Spring Training focusing on which pitchers will comprise the New York Yankees’ bullpen?
Because the bullpen, even more so than the development of the young Yankee starting pitchers, will determine how far this team goes.
Look no farther than these numbers from last season. Boston’s bullpen was second overall in ERA, and Cleveland was 6th in the American League. Not coincidentally, those two teams played in the American League Championship Series.
The Yankees? A pedestrian 22nd in the league, even with the dominating late-season efforts of Joba Chamberlain.
The way the game is played today, relievers more often than starters are the guys who are determining outcomes of games.
Think back to the Yankees’ run of dominance in the late 1990s. What did the Yankees have that no one else could match? Yes, they had great players on the field, but that wasn’t it.
What the Yankees had from 1996 thru 2001 was the ability to, basically, turn every game into a 6-inning affair.
First, it was with Mariano Rivera setting up for John Wetteland. Then, it was with Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, Ramiro Mendoza and, for a while, Graeme Lloyd, setting up for Rivera.
When the Yankees were winning championships, they would get a late and almost never, ever give it back. I don’t have the exact numbers, but in those days it was always a stunner when the Yankees gave back a lead.
Even when they were behind early in games, Mendoza was seemingly always there to pitch 3-4 innings and give the Bombers a chance to hit their way back into games.
It has been a long time since the Yankees have gotten that kind of work from their bullpen. They have gone through retread after retread — Mark Wohlers, second tours of duty for Stanton and Nelson, Armando Benitez, Gabe White, Buddy Groom, Scott Proctor, Mike Myers, Kyle Farnsworth, Jay Witasick — the list goes on and on.
The names haven’t mattered. For years now it has been hold your breath and pray that you could get a lead to Rivera, and all too often the Yankees have not been able to.
On top of that, the reality is that the way baseball is played today relievers are pitching more and starters are pitching less. There was a fascinating study about this published by Baseball Crank a couple of years ago. The study only has numbers through the 2004 season, but it perfectly illustrates the growing importance of the bullpen.
The study details not only the declining number of innings pitched by starters. It also details the declining percentage of innings pitched by starters AND a team’s best reliever — or closer. In 1980, that percentage was 69.2. In 2004, it was just 58.5, leaving more than 40% of a team’s innings to be handled by guys who are considered second line pitchers.
I seriously doubt that trend has changed in the past three seasons.
That is why Chamberlain will be a force for the Yankees as long as they leave him in the bullpen, though it seems certain he will ultimately be a starter. And why guys like Russ Ohlendorf, Edwar Ramirez, Billy Traber, Jonathan Albaladejo, Brian Bruney, Chris Britton and others could ultimately be the key figures in the outcome of the Yankees season.